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EAST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The cheering was relentless as members of East Haven High School's Class of 2014 walked across the stage at Frank "Coach" Crisafi Field, one by one, to accept their diplomas.
But there was one graduate who got a standing ovation.
"I would like to be standing before you and I would love to be able to use my own voice for this speech," Michael Scoopo told his graduating classmates in his valedictorian address. This is "the culmination for all my hard work, not just within the last four years, but ever since that November day in 2000 when the course of my life was forever altered."
Scoopo is valedictorian of the class of 2014 despite not being able to walk, write with his hands or talk.
Before Nov. 8, 2000, Michael "Mikey" Scoopo was what you'd call a regular 5-year-old.
Everything changed in a mouthful.
It is unclear which morsel of food was tainted with E. coli bacteria, but whatever it was almost killed him. The boy underwent dialysis, transfusions and even a spinal tap. His heart nearly succumbed to two strokes. He lost speech and motor skills as a result.
Yet there he was on stage Monday night, beaming a smile wider than the mouth of the Quinnipiac River.
His school assistant, Ray Curren, said Scoopo is known for his competitive nature. He ran for class president but lost to fellow graduate Michael DeMarco.
In his address, DeMarco warned classmates not to "take for granted the mere pipe dreams of a better future" — airplanes, breakthrough medicine, robots, calculators.
"There has been no better time to reach for the stars to realize your dreams."
The theme of accomplishment in the face of adversity continued when Maria Sarahi Melchor gave her salutatorian address. She encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace curiosity.
"Had (Apple founder) Steve Jobs spent his time waiting for someone else to develop the iPod we'd still be carrying around compact disc players," she said. "Don't make the mistake of waiting for things to happen on their own, instead, be curious. Don't be afraid to take the risk of exploring the unknown."
Curren said Melchor, who will be attending Yale University this fall on a full scholarship, didn't arrive in East Haven until she was about 9 years old. Her family immigrated from Mexico, he said. This year she was named by her classmates as the graduate who would most likely become U.S. president.
"She had to remind them that there would have to be a change in the Constitution," Curren said in an interview following commencement proceedings. "She wasn't born here."
Superintendent of Schools Portia Bonner said the Class of 2014, comprised of 225 students, will be moving on with more than $80,000 in scholarships.
"This class will be remembered for 11,272 hours of community service," Bonner said. "We are so proud of you."
For Bonner, who was hired last summer to replace retiring Superintendent of Schools Anthony Serio, it was her first graduation. She reminded the graduates of the importance of knowledge "for the more you know, the further you will go.
"We want you to remember to achieve the goals you have set for yourself," she added. "And how to surpass the obstacles that are placed before you."
As for Scoopo, his next challenge lies at the University of New Haven. Curren said Scoopo plans on studying forensic science.
During his speech, which he penned himself but was read aloud by a faculty member, Scoopo quoted legendary University of California at Los Angeles basketball coach John Wooden, saying, "do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."
Scoopo reminded his classmates about the people who will encourage them to follow their dreams and those who will tell them what they cannot do. He recalled his doubts about enrolling in high school four years ago.
"Almost everyone sitting out there in a cap and gown has helped me out in some way," he said. "Even if it was something small like holding the door open or just getting out of my way so I can get to class on time."
He urged fellow graduates not to be shy about reaching out to others for help.
"Just like me there are surely things you cannot do well," Scoopo said. "Hopefully you won't be afraid to ask for help from people who can. When you're going through hard times it is our friends, family and community who help get us through. To get us away from the things we cannot do and by becoming stronger for showing the world what we can do."
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com
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